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How much oil was lost in the gulf?

August 06, 2010

Dear Control Engineering: Please help me understand how much oil was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

We’ll never know exactly how much oil was released from the blown-out Deepwater Horizon well over the past few months, but it is safe to say that it was the largest oil spill ever. One estimate that seems to be gaining acceptance is that roughly 5 million barrels (206 million gallons) were spewed into the gulf. How can you get a grip on that number?

If you were to dig a pit 100 ft. wide and 100 ft. deep, it would need to be about 2,750 feet long to contain that volume.

OK, maybe such an example isn’t very easy to visualize, but it suggests we’re dealing with a large volume. Let’s try to put it in a statistical context using some other oil-related numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Energy compiled from 2008 data:

U.S. crude oil production, 4.95 million barrels/day;

U.S. petroleum consumption, 19.5 million barrels/day;

Texas’ aggregate refining capacity, 4.7 million barrels/day; and

Total world petroleum production/consumption, 85.5 million barrels/day (The two numbers are almost identical.)

So, the spill was about one day’s worth of U.S. oil production, and one-quarter of a day’s consumption. Will anyone notice that?

--Peter Welander,
Control Engineering